May 3, 2012 at 1:43 PM ET
Former NFL star Junior Seau’s death on Wednesday is fueling debate over whether football’s big hits leave some players with lingering brain damage that can lead to depression and possibly even suicide.
The police have yet to determine whether the 43-year-old linebacker did, in fact, commit suicide. But because his death follows so closely on the heels of two high-profile suicides in former NFL defensive backs, many are wondering if the concussions Seau sustained during his 20 years as a hard-hitting star, known mostly for his stint with the San Diego Chargers, including the 1994 Super Bowl team, were implicated in his death.
In February 2011, former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson committed suicide at age 50, choosing to shoot himself in the chest so that scientists could look for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease linked to head blows that can culminate in dementia and other symptoms. And just last month, former Atlanta Falcon Ray Easterling, who had sued the NFL for mismanaging players’ concussions, shot and killed himself at age 62.
Experts interviewed by msnbc.com were mixed in their opinions on whether Seau’s concussions could have led to his apparent suicide. All agreed that there should be more research on the impact of head injuries on the risk for depression and suicide.
“I think the evidence is very strong in both human and animal studies that repeated concussions that occur very close in time can result in depression and other emotional disorders that can lead to suicide,” said David Hovda, a professor of neurosurgery and director of the University of California, Los Angeles, Brain Injury Research Center. “Whether they are the sole reason for the suicide, I don’t think can be determined.”
Hovda believes it’s possible that Seau shot himself in the chest so that he, like Duerson, might leave his brain for scientists to study.
Dr. Douglas Smith was more cautious.
“There’s beginning to be an assumption that repeated exposure to head injuries can make you suicidal,” said Smith, a professor of neurosurgery and director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s certainly suspicious and something that we should absolutely look into.”
But Smith cautioned that people shouldn’t assume that concussions will always lead to permanent brain damage. “There are many highly functioning individuals who have had a series of concussions -- captains of industry, politicians -- who are doing very well,” he said.
The issue is a lot more murky for Pittsburgh Steelers' team neurosurgeon, Dr. Joseph Maroon, who was quick to point out the high incidence of depression among Americans who haven’t ever had an injury to their brains.
“Depression is one of the most common diseases that affect people in the United States,” said Maroon, a professor of neurosurgery and the Heindl Scholar in Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh. “Some 10 to 15 percent of American who have not played football will have pathologic depression at some time in their lives. The most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States are antidepressants.
“Given that, we also know that there may be a relationship in some individuals between multiple blows to the head, or even a single blow to the head, that can result in abnormal and pathological behavior. In an individual case, in this one for instance, from what I’ve read so far, I don’ t think there’s any way you can definitively say that this was directly related to football.”
Nevertheless, Maroon said, people are taking concussion damage far more seriously these days. “There’s been a major cultural shift in the recognition and appreciation of post-concussive effects,” he said.